Sunday 22 July 2018

Ireland's dominance in Europe made the English and French gnash their teeth and hatch their plot

An all-English Champions Cup final is a possibility — but Matt Giteau and Toulon will have other ideas Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
An all-English Champions Cup final is a possibility — but Matt Giteau and Toulon will have other ideas Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Eddie Butler

The quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup are a determinedly Anglo-French affair, with five clubs from the Premiership and three from the Top 14 making up the last eight. This must be as pleasing for the architects of European rugby as it is disturbing for the victims of the coup of 2014.

Those victims have a repository, the Pro12, a cross-border competition in its own right, but one that in its stretch - all the way from Glasgow and Galway to northern Italy - is overextended and under-appreciated. Nothing represented the Pro12's loss of influence more than the physical shifting of European rugby's headquarters from Dublin to Neuchatel in Switzerland.

The new authority took a new name, European Professional Club Rugby, where there is pointedly no mention of the provinces of Ireland, the regions of Wales or the districts of Scotland. There is space only for clubs, and with all due respect to Treviso and Zebre, that meant England and France.

Connacht and the Newport Gwent Dragons will play in the quarter-finals of the secondary European Challenge Cup but their away ties at Grenoble and Gloucester are a far cry from the days when Leinster and Munster won five Heineken Cups between them in seven years. Of course, it was that very period of Irish dominance between 2006 and 2012 that made the English and the French gnash their teeth and hatch their plot.

The Pro12 must respond positively now. It has always been lighter on its feet on the field of play than the heavyweights of England and France, built to batter their way through a nine-month club season but aerobically suspect at international level. And now that nimbleness may have to dance with the prospect of jettisoning the Italian clubs and inviting the Exile clubs of England's capital - London Welsh, Scottish and, who knows, perhaps even Irish - to strengthen the Celtic knot. The Pro12 (or 13) must continue to be progressive, thinking of where a concussion-conscious game is heading next, emphasising accuracy over bulk, technique over brute force, and putting a premium on pace and space, ahead of unremitting contact. More Glasgow, less Toulon.

For the moment, however, the European champions of the past three seasons are still in the mix. Toulon no longer have Jonny Wilkinson or Ali Williams, who were once their concessions to a little grace on the field, but they are still in the chase, away to Racing 92 in the one all-French quarter-final. They still have Matt Giteau on the books, although it will be touch and go for him to be fit. The Australian against Dan Carter would be the duel of the day - and evidence of a spending power in France beyond the dreams of any Pro13.

Despite the appeal of their showdown in Paris, it should be England's weekend. Three of their clubs will have home advantage: Wasps, Saracens and Leicester. Saracens are the team of the past couple of years, growing in confidence in all forms of competition and poised to win the European prize that has eluded them. They had, if this is possible, their domestic hiccup at just the right time. They lost to Leicester and Northampton, but felt the full benefit of being reinforced by their large contingent of England Grand slam winners and beat Exeter last weekend in the Premiership.

Should Saracens beat Northampton, they will face the winners of Wasps and Exeter in neutral Reading.

Wasps have the experience and Exeter have the ambition; both clubs built themselves on togetherness, where forthrightness was more influential than flamboyance. Both then built on that unforgiving base - as if they too sensed where the game was going - and put a real sparkle into their attacking play. Henry Slade isn't yet Carter, nor Elliot Daley a Giteau, but they bring something daring to the field.

Leicester are Leicester, and will be feisty and uncompromising as long as Richard Cockerill is in charge. They are at the same time - and their coach probably scratches his head furiously about this - a little bit more free-flowing and a little bit more prone to an upset than is traditional. Losing at home to Sale and away to Newcastle will have annoyed them.

A home tie against Stade Francais, who are the fallen giants of the French season - the reigning Top 14 champions have been just above the relegation zone all season - is a tonic, a chance to relive Leicester's first triumph in the Heineken Cup, a 34-30 victory over Stade at the Parc des Princes. Leicester might point out that they played with a bit of daring that day. And so they truly did.

If Leicester are to go all the way again, they may be hoping to play against Racing 92 rather than Toulon. A semi-final against Carter would be at the City Ground in Nottingham; against Giteau would be in Nice - splendid for the Riviera; a little hostile for rugby. Even so, if England have three semi-finalists it may be hard, in their time of rediscovered national self-esteem, to argue against an all-England final.


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